I came up with this post after meeting with a favorite client today. She's a charming and intelligent woman with a good career and a 401k who, until recently, had never thought of herself as an investor. Investments were complicated things designed for wealthy people. And then she realized that she wanted to buy a home. Part of our problem with the term "investor" is that too many of us picture this when we hear it:
There is some kind of vague understanding out there that "real" investors have special access to a supply of financial jargon, legal tricks and overpriced cuff links that somehow make sense of those relentless scrolling stock prices on CNN. And let's face it, throwing in tax references (tax-deferred, capital gains, tax efficiency) isn't helping. It's enough to make any reasonable person throw her hands up. And it's no surprise that so many of us, even when we actually have investments, don't think of ourselves as investors.
Watching the determination with which my client approached her goal of homeownership really brought home what we are doing wrong when it comes to investing. Buying a home is a form of investing, but where talk of 401k's and index funds makes people feel overwhelmed and anxious, talk of mortgage calculations and down payments has a completely different effect. People who feel empowered as they approach home ownership. And that's important. Because while I am the first to point out that homeownership isn't a good investment for everyone, the real estate industry has done something right by making clear that every buyer should feel like she belongs at that proverbial homeownership table just as much as any coiffed businessman in navy suit.
Since the great home building boom of the 1950's, Americans have understood that our economy depends on the willingness of "average" middle-class people to buy homes. But we seem to have forgotten that our economy depends on those same people to hold up everything else, as well,—grocery chains, cars, professional services, restaurants, charities, and yes, stock markets. Because no matter how wealthy our wealthy class gets, they are never going to make, hold or spend enough money to sustain a modern economy (feel free to ask me why "trickle down theory" was a clever illusion).
All of this leaves us with a dilemma. Most of us believe that we are cut out to be investors in housing, even if we aren't quite ready, yet. And we believe (even if we have temporarily forgotten) that we, in fact, are the U.S. economy when we work and when we spend. But we don't seem to realize that we are also the "public" behind publicly traded corporations and the only reason that stock markets are worth tracking. The hard truth is that we depend on these markets to ensure that we have funds to live on after 65 and that we have the money to buy homes (or to help our children buy them). So how do we convince one another to demand a little more clarity around the retirement plans and investment accounts on which we depend? How do we claim our places at this other table?